Thursday, 30 July 2015

Inspiration : Prawle Point - and When Death Comes

One of the reasons I keep this blog is as a Commonplace Book.  Writing posts about my jaunts with photos helps me to remember in detail where I've been, and if I'm lucky enough to come home with a poem in my pocket, it's an invaluable tool for the writing of it, especially since a fair bit of time can elapse before the poem is ready to be shaped.  

With this in mind, I thought I might occasionally post finished poems with their associated photos, and a brief description about how they came about.

One of my favourite spots is Prawle Point at the southernmost tip of Devon.  It's quite a remote place, and for me it combines the wild beauty of somewhere like Dartmoor with the pull of the sea - truly, a winning situation.  It also gave me a poem the last time I was there.
It might seem odd, then, that this 'last time I was there' was as long ago as the last day of May in 2001, during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.  (The stretch of the coast path was one of the few parts of the countryside that was still open to the public, and even then we had to walk through troughs of disinfectant before we could access it.)  If I love it so much, why haven't I been back?

Well, it was only a fortnight after the funeral of my 22 year old cousin who had hanged himself, and his death is so tied up with my memory of  the place that it makes returning - even nearly 15 years later - a daunting prospect.

The walk we followed that day is from my treasured Jarrold Pathfinder Guide 1.  We headed along the coast path as far as Gammon Head before turning inland, stopping in the village of East Prawle for ice cream outside the pub (we had young children at the time).  It was a glorious day and the lanes were stuffed with flowers.  We continued as far as Woodcombe, where we followed the footpath down to the sea.  

As the name implies, Woodcombe is a valley of low trees and for much of the way it was impossible to see the nearby sea. I remember there were cows in the woods, which was somewhat startling, and where the trees ended at the cliff edge, a hawthorn bush thick with may blossom, presumably later than elsewhere because of the wind-blasted nature of the coast. In the dazzle of sun and sea, I did indeed momentarily conflate the sight of a cormorant with its wings semi-folded with the sort of sculpture of a funeral urn you might see on a Victorian grave, and this was the trigger for the poem I knew I would write, addressed to my cousin.  

Prawle Point

Don’t imagine for a moment
that I didn’t think of you
just because the sun spilt honey
and the tumbling lanes drowsed,
mesmerised by flowers.
True, my memory tripped
like wind through wheat fields,
chasing Chinese whispers, wild rumours,

only to eddy on itself
as we stumbled down the blinded combe
towards your crucible of fleet, elusive dreams,
where, beyond a crest of hawthorn,
a cormorant kept the look-out
from its lonely pedestal.
Basalt angel?  Reliquary urn?
My eyelid flickered in the glare. 

Fifteen days ago we launched
your narrow, wooden boat.
Flags flapped low, taut wires and lines
against high masts tolled your passing.
And one black cardigan, forgotten,
lifted from a railing on the breeze,
as hapless – hopeless – as the sail
of the Athenians’ homebound ship.

© Deborah Harvey 2011

'Prawle Point' took a long time to see the light of day, mainly because I stopped writing poems altogether after my cousin's death.  Suddenly poetry seemed too dangerous a place to go.  I successfully masked this feeling by deciding I was no good at it, and I wrote my historical novel, Dart, instead. I only began to write poetry again in 2007.  

When I did send it out, it was highly commended in the 2009 Yeovil Literary Prize (judged by Carol Ann Duffy). It was subsequently published in my 2011 collection, Communion, and is now also on the When Death Comes website, along with other poems that form part of a creative conversation in poetry and art about death and living.

Here's some more detail about the project:

When death comes is an art space and series of events where people can come together to think about, talk about, and create their own work about dying and living.

We don’t have enough spaces to talk about death and the profound effects it has on our lives.  And we don’t have many spaces to respond creatively to these stories – producing work that can help us in our own lives as well as inspire and connect with others.

Join us in Bristol from 16 September to 11 October 2015 for a season of creative activities and events. Contribute things that have inspired or helped you think about death and dying, or work that you’ve created in response to your own experiences of grief and loss.  And join us for a range of thought-provoking, inspiring and life-affirming events.

Together we will make an evolving, vibrant and creative space that celebrates life as well as death’s role in shaping it.  We hope to see you there.       

Photograph of cormorant ©Tony Pratt

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Othello, National Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

A short review I wrote for our local rag ... 

It sometimes seems that each new production of a Shakespeare play demands some singularity, if only to distinguish it from all the others.  With the RSC’s current, modern-dress version of ‘Othello’, directed by Iqbal Khan, it is that our eponymous hero (played by Hugh Quarshie) and his nemesis, Iago (a superb Lucian Msamati), are the same race, yet this shift in perspective is no gimmick.  At a stroke, the racism inherent in the plot becomes more subtle, and complex reasons for Iago’s villainy suggest themselves. For instance, when Iago repeatedly refers to his commanding officer as ‘the Moor’, it is with a degree of sarcasm that leaves the audience in no doubt as to the level of bitterness he feels at having been overlooked for promotion in favour of the spuriously liberal Cassio. Othello is permitted to own his identity, whilst Iago must dance attendance.

Along with Iago as evil-for-the-sake-of-it psychopath, the stereotype of Othello as 'noble Moor' is also jettisoned when we see him sanction waterboarding by his troops and, as his madness deepens, come close to asphyxiating Iago in order to obtain details of Desdemona's presumed infidelity. 

It is the character of Emilia, Iago’s wife, who touches me most, being unwittingly complicit in the fate of her mistress, and in this production she is played with passion and intensity by Ayesha Dharker.  Also outstanding is Ciaran Bagnall’s set, comprising arches and arcades and a pool of water which sees service as a Venetian canal, an instrument of torture, and a bathing pool.  As the jealousy of both Othello and Iago grows, so the mist over the water billows and thickens and the shadows lengthen.  This is an electrifying production that more than makes up for the disappointing Merchant of Venice running concurrently.  

Friday, 24 July 2015

Apotropaios: Soul Outlines

Last week came the partial unravelling of a mystery that has foxed me ever since May 2011, when Dru and I visited St Michael's, Dundry, which, as its dedication suggests, perches high on Dundry Hill overlooking Bristol.

This is Dru's photo of an altar tomb dating from the 1730s in the churchyard. If you look to the right hand side you can see that there are outlines of shoes - or rather, soles - on the slab.  But why, dammit, why?

We pondered long and hard. Perhaps a lover had cut them while he was waiting for his sweetheart to emerge from evensong.  Except he'd have opted for a heart and initials, wouldn't he? 

Maybe it's a dancing lesson, Dru said. It's interrupted when father comes home from the quarry - there's his hobmail boot on the threshold, see?  

No, it's the footprints of a mother and her children dancing on Father's grave, I concluded.  And I wrote a rather poor poem and Dru drew a picture for a putative illustrated book of local poems that never got any further than that.  

I did make sporadic, rather lethargic attempts to find out a little more. 'Was it a cement top to the tomb?' asked David Williams, a then inhabitant of the village. 'Could they be prints rather than carvings?' But no, it was definitely the local yellow oolitic limestone that goes by the name of Dundry stone.  

And that was that until some desultory browsing on Facebook last week uncovered this photo taken in the porch of St Gile's Church, Bredon in Worcestershire in a group called Apotropaios.

Well, I knew about the practice of concealing (mainly well-worn) shoes in buildings since at least the early modern period, as magic charms to ward off evil and/or fertility charms, but I hadn't associated this with carved outlines or even realised that the examples at Dundry were anything more than an isolated phenomenon. 

There was more. A friend of Dru's, Philip Watson, posted these from the roof of St Peter and St Paul at Mucheleney, with the hasty postscript that he hadn't been up there for nefarious purposes.  

I tried a spot more googling.  June Swan, former keeper of the shoe and boot collection at Northampton Museum, writes 'Shoe and sole outlines may be found scratched on buildings and other structures, which confirms the significance of the shoe shape' but offers no further information or explanation.  

I found further examples in the form of an outline of  what looks like a matching pair of shoes carved into the lead on the roof of St Michael and All Angels in Edmondthorpe in Leicestershire.  Also in the graveyard at St Stephen's Chapel, which forms part of the ruins of Bordesley Abbey, Redditch, where the Curator believes them to be either acts of vandalism or an indication of profession, such as cobbler. Meanwhile the blogger who posted the photos suggests that they might be connected with the custom of giving clothes shoes to the poor by the monks - although this wouldn't account for other examples elsewhere, and in a non-monasterial setting.  

All of which poses more questions than it answers - for example, are they always associated with religious buildings? - and leaves me more intrigued than ever by these vestiges of lost souls.  

20th August 2015

Dru Marland has drawn another example to my attention, at St Melangell's Church in Welshpool. Again, locals seem to be blaming cobblers! 

5th March 2016

A shoe at St Mary's in Trostan, Suffolk, together with the head of a demon.

26th August 2016

Spotted these at the back of the redundant Church of St James of Compostela in Cameley. The guide to the Church merely describes these as 'three pieces of lead from the roof, where presumably those who laid or repaired it autographed it with their footprints and the dates 1733, 1757 and 1795.' 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Ted Goes To Berrow Beach and Brean

It being the first weekend of the summer holidays, Berrow Beach was rather busier than usual. 

There might even have been a couple of other people there apart from us.  

There was a man with a metal detector which Ted had a good look at, just to make sure he hadn't sneaked a vacuum cleaner onto the beach, but on the whole he was far more interested in his ball. 
I'm sure he thinks that if he stares at it hard enough, it will gravitate towards him. 


When we arrived the tide was still quite high. It was curious to see the wreck of the SS Nornen afloat - if only briefly and only after a fashion.  

The moon still being very new, the sea was receding rapidly and within fifty minutes it had abandoned the wreck and was disappearing over the horizon.
Our plan had been to head to Brean for tea and chips and then walk the length of Brean Down, but Ted's lead broke so we only managed to do the first bit. (There's sheep on that there ridge.)  Never mind, that means we'll have to go back again soon.  

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Poetry Fever at Priddy Folk Festival

On the face of it, it should have been an evening to forget - a handful of poets herded into the Spoken Word tent at Priddy Folk Festival in less than balmy July weather and with what can only be described as a modest audience (although that's generally a given for poetry events) and then left to our own devices.  And that was before the band in the tent alongside started their very loud set, which they did bang on seven-thirty (also our start time).

But we are poets and we spit in the eye of adversity and make it say sorry for being a bit of a git.  Anyhow, as luck would have it, I'd had the foresight to bring a compère with me who stepped into the breach with aplomb.  

Après moi, le déluge - littéralement - namely, Wells Fountain Poets with Waterwoven, their collage of words, lines and stanzas.  I found that having to listen harder to hear it meant that I concentrated better than the first time I encountered it, at Bath Poetry Cafe's Day of Good Poetry back in March when I thought it was fab, and this time I was swept away. Can't wait to hear it again in late September at Bristol Poetry Festival. 

Claire Diprose, Jo Waterworth, Ewan MacPherson
Ama Bolton, Morag Kiziewicz, Sara Butler
The final set of the evening was from Jo Waterworth, a well-named member of Fountain Poets, and former Bard of Glastonbury, Dearbhaile Bradley,  whose poems conversed with each other quite happily.  

As is so often the case after listening to good poetry, I left with my brain fizzing and making crackling connections. 'That's poetry fever,' said my compère, sagely. 'Beware.'  But I don't care. Write in the heat of the moment, edit at leisure.  

All photos courtesy Jo Waterworth

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Romanticism Revisited : An Interactive Map

Back in April I was approached by the Department of English at Bristol University about an interactive, site-specific map it was developing concerning the literary heritage of the South West, in particular the area’s important and inspirational connection with major Romantic writers.  In short, it was seeking commissions from contemporary poets with a connection to Bristol and/or the South West, for poems written in response to any of the key locations of Romanticism.  

Well, this was right up my vernacular alley.  What could do I but submit my Coleridge and Keats poems? 

Well, I'm pleased to say that the map is now active, and the app can be downloaded to a smartphone, android device or on Apple.  And if, like me, you're not really sure what an app is, you can view it on the website also

Happy poeticking!


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Ratepayers' Cherry Vodka

You will need:

about 2lbs of municipal cherries  (I get mine from a tree in the park. There's still loads left.)

about 1 lb of sugar (except I use less because I like it to taste a bit tart.)

10 fl oz of water

2 x 70 cl bottles of the cheapest vodka you can find

Make slits in the cherries. Put them in a pot, add sugar and water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for a few minutes until softened.

Divide cherries and liquid into two Kilner jars. (I use cheaper equivalent.)  Top each one up with vodka, seal when cool and leave for a minimum of 4 weeks.  (Or longer.)

And there you have Ratepayers' Cherry Vodka - except in my case this is a bit of a misnomer as the park is just within the Bristol boundary and my house is a few doors inside South Gloucestershire so they're actually even freer than that. 


Sunday, 5 July 2015

Priddy Folk Festival 2015 - The Word Tent

There are lots of splendid things about Priddy.

This pregnant tree, for example ... 

... this detail in the memorial window in the Church of St Lawrence ... 

... Nine Barrows burial mounds ... 


... adders ... gruffy ground ... Mendip wallfish ... The Queen Victoria pub ... and for this weekend only ...


... which isn't just about music and dancing, oh no, come along to the Word Tent too, on the main green on both Friday and Saturday evening. My own slot is around 7.30pm on Friday.   Hope to see you there. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Summer Art in Bristol

Here's a short review I wrote for the local rag. With added pictures.

William Hogarth: Painter and Printmaker  Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

James Ravilious : Rural Life / Peter Randall-Page RWA & Kate MccGwire
Into The Fields : The Newlyn School And Other Artists    
                                                    Royal West of England Academy    

 What delight for lovers of art in Bristol this summer!  You have until the end of August to get up close and personal with the ‘Father of British painting’, William Hogarth, and up close is really where you want to be, taking in details such as the tears in Sigismunda’s eyes as she mourns her slain lover, Giuscardo, whilst clutching a beautifully embossed golden goblet containing his heart to her own, or the foaming cataracts of white lawn worn by Thomas Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury, who inexplicably disliked his portrait.  I was struck by the humanity Hogarth sees in his sitters, from servants to aristocrats, and conveys to the viewer through fluid brushstrokes.

Sigismunda mourning over the Heart of Giuscardo, her murder'd husband 1759

Thomas Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury 1747

I have to say I was disappointed that Hogarth’s stunning triptych, originally painted for St Mary Redcliffe, was not included in the exhibition – at least until I read that it is way too high to fit into the ground-floor exhibition gallery.

However, it is possible to see it on Doors Open Day or by appointment in its current home, St Nicholas Church, where it rises in incongruous magnificence above the computer screens of Bristol Archaeological Services, also now housed within.

James Ravilious, whose work is being exhibited at the RWA until 6th September, travelled North Devon photographing rural scenes for the Beaford Archive in the 1970s and 1980s.  

His work is almost exclusively monochrome, which might seem perverse given his subject matter, but which gives his work a timeless quality. His photograph of sheep lost in a lane could have been taken at any point in the past hundred years, and his portraits of people absorbed in their tasks can be dated mainly by what the subjects are wearing. 

Many of his images now verge on the iconic – odds are you’ve seen a reproduction of Archie Parkhouse and Ivor Brock dragging a sick ram across a field in a tin bath in a card shop – but this exhibition give you a chance to see some of his less well known work too.  I particularly enjoyed the movement of swifts swooping across in a lane, a young lad viewed from the church tower as he runs for the school bus, and a barking border collie outlined by the sun.  

 While you’re at the RWA, don’t miss sculpture by Peter Randall-Page and Kate MccGwire, and an exhibition of work by the Newlyn School and Other Artists also.